A Conversation with Vyvian Wilson
© Judie Cross and Figure/Ground
Vyvian Wilson was interviewed by Judie Cross in February, 2016.
Vyvian Wilson is an active and prolific member of the Illawarra Association of the Visual Arts. Her work evolves from a sense of ‘intoxication’ and seduction that she feels in response to light – not only ethereal blue light, but also the heat and fire of the light in steel works at night. Her method is dynamic as she allows each work she embarks upon (birthed from a feeling, image or idea in her mind) to take her on a journey, shifting lines or shapes or colours and integrating collage elements that she works with in the process of realising her initial inspiration.
Vyvian Wilson completed a Diploma of Visual Arts in 1980, majoring in painting and printmaking at the Alexander Mackie Collage of Advanced Education – now known as the City Art Institute from where she was later awarded a BA Visual Arts in 1984. In 2009, after 20 years as an arts administrator/General Manager for Australia Council, Sydney Dance Company, Legs on the Wall, Vyvian made a huge leap and embraced a career as a full time artist. Her first solo show was Finding Place in 2011, quickly followed by two more major exhibitions – Light in Dark at the Hanging Space in 2012 and Intimations at the Clifton School of Arts in 2014. Vyvian Wilson has also participated in several curated group exhibitions, including Local Current in 2013, New Contemporary Acquisitions from the Collection in 2014 and Steel City in 2016, all at the Wollongong Art Gallery and Out of the Illawarra at NSW Parliament House in 2015. Her work is included in private and public collections including the Wollongong Art Gallery.
Can you talk about your education and experience and important influences?
I think I was a bit lost at art school. I was so naive and unworldly. Significant teachers for me were Kevin Connor and Peter Upward. They were generous and nurturing. After Mackie I continued my arts practice and worked part-time. In 1984 I enrolled in a BA at Sydney University to fill some big gaps in my understanding of art history and theory. It was during this study that I became deeply fond of the early Renaissance artists, in particular Giotto. I love Giotto’s humility and sensitivity to the ‘ordinary’. His work is gentle and yet his compositions are strong and work in an abstract sense too. Perhaps Giotto resonated with me because of what was going on in my own life at the time. Extensive travel to Europe switched me onto Rembrandt. The impact of his self-portraits had on me was profound. Turner was a revelation about the possibilities of paint. Other important influences in my work have been Patrick White (a writer rather than a painter, but one whose characters and landscapes I could smell and feel), Kandinsky, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Cummings, Joy Hester and Lloyd Rees.
How and when did you decide to become an artist?
I did not go to art school with the intention of becoming ‘an artist’. I just knew I wanted to make art. That was something essential to me. I was not practical and, unlike a few of my male peers, never considered how I was going to make a living from my work …
Have you always needed to paint images that make you wonder?
Yes, somehow when I make a work it always takes on a life of its own. I can start a work with a particular intention, but invariably it becomes a tug of war between this original intention and what the work itself is dictating itself. I find this dynamic gives me huge pleasure. If a work comes too easily there’s little joy in it for me.
Have people ever featured in your art?
Yes, there have been times when I needed to base my work around figures. After the suicides of my sister and then my father I did a series of figurative works. Before their deaths, most of my work was abstract expressionist, but somehow this approach seemed so inadequate after I lost my sister and father. I needed to articulate their bodies and faces. More recently I made a more figurative series called ‘Memory Maps’. These were a pictorial ‘mapping’ of some key fragments I was able to recall when living in Cyprus and Greece, the countries of my late father and ancestors. For many years these rekindled memories had been hovering in distant continents in my mind – foreign landscapes of love, of yearning and of grief. The experience of being physically immersed in these places sent them on a journey back to me.
In your joint exhibition with Alena Kennedy, Intimations, you talk about the deep symbolic and mythological attributes of the ancient Mediterranean Cypress tree: mourning, grief and the underworld. You also mention it is known as the ‘drama tree’ because of the way it bends and sways in the breeze.
The work in Intimations was a result of a recent journey to Cyprus and Greece. I was the ancient landscapes that were both alien and yet so familiar to me, while the light there is extraordinary.
I needed to respond to these places by painting them and in a way sharing them with my dad. He never really talked about the places of his youth, having left Cyprus when he was just 18. There are his poems about the island but these are elusive and I found it difficult to actually ‘see’ him there.
However after spending four months in his old world I could hear and see him everywhere. There were colours and shapes and sounds that brought him back to me. The Cypress Pines became like my father’s sentinels – always present, punctuating the vistas with their deeply rooted, dark, moody, and dusty shapes.
Did you work on your unusually vertical, mixed media work of “Harbour and the Cypress” in Greece or from your mind’s eye when back in Wombarra Australia?
Apart from drawings, all my work is created in the studio. I rely mainly on my memory and occasionally I use photos as prompts. This one was created entirely from my mind’s eye. It’s a fabricated re-enactment of a distinct impression I had of the harbour in Famagusta. Usually I do not attempt to re-create exact scenarios. I build the image according to the particular feel, light, colour sensations I remember of the place. I think that because of this way of working the composition has more freedom to morph into something other or apart from what is ‘real’.
Can you talk about your choice of mixed media?
I have used collage as a significant element in my work for over 30 years. I have no idea why…but thinking about it now maybe by incorporating collage into my work I am able push or ‘tilt’ the picture into a more surreal dreamlike state. By placing torn/cut images and textures into the painted surface I’m asking the viewer to question what exactly they are looking at. I like how the collage elements act like road blocks in the picture field. The collage does work as a design element but can also give a clue about the subject. I like taking a torn piece of magazine eg. some section of a very glamorous dress or architect designed home, stick it within the image, paint over it, draw back into the image and voila! – I’ve created some entirely new element that makes the work ‘sing’.
The colours in “Fire Moon II” are more consistently bright than in most of your other works, where cool luminous or even ethereal blues are more common.
The Fire & Moon series were about the drama of the steel works at night. The colour choice was deliberate to describe the hot, acidic reds and yellows of the reflections of burning furnaces on the harbour of Port Kembla. Red is pretty powerful – I use it regularly, but selectively.
I’m particularly impressed by how you manage to create an effect that your images are not frozen moments of time …
Yes, I’m pleased you can see this. Sometimes I feel my images are like stage sets in which there is potential for current and future action – like a garden with its paths and nooks and crannies that invite the viewer in to explore. A deliberate device I use is to articulate many points of entry into the picture for the viewer. It’s up to the viewer to find his/her own way in.
Can we talk about what you are working on now?
I am a person who is very affected emotionally by what is going on in the world – politically, socially and environmentally. I have periods when the struggles for social justice makes me feel conflicted about how to remain relevant as an artist. Essentially, though, I respond aesthetically to the land and my memories and need to work that way. I often resist talking or writing about my work because I’m a bit of a purist and prefer the viewer to respond to the image first– even the title should be secondary.
I’m currently reading The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir, which has helped me to see how important it is that artists continue to make art that speaks to people about their personal response to life. This is where art can be useful – ‘to show the world to others as you yourself see it’. If this can bring the viewer pleasure then I believe there is value in that…so I’m taking a step or two back and want to explore the local, domestic and intimate. I’m currently working on a series of smallish works for a show in Sydney. I think the title of the show will be ‘Here’ with works based around my home, studio and garden. I’m also focusing this year on drawing and try to practise everyday now. I still have so much more to learn!
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Vyvian Wilson, Judie Cross and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Suggested citation: Cross, Judie (2016). “Conversation with Vyvian Wilson,” Figure/Ground. February, 2016. < http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-vyvian-wilson/ >
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